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The lost world of royal commissions

Royal commissions have gone out of fashion.

Royal commissions have gone out of fashion. There have been just three since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, compared with 34 in the exactly the same period between 1945 and 1979. The last one was on the reform of the House of Lords under Lord Wakeham in 1999-2000, whose recommendations are still the subject of fierce controversy.

The conventional view has been, in the famous words of Harold Wilson, that they “take minutes and waste years” (Wilson set up no fewer than 10 during his two periods as Prime Minister). They are seen as diversions, attempts to defer difficult issues, particularly if the commission is not intended to report until after the following general election. Prime ministers now prefer to set up smaller, and more rapidly, reporting inquiries with a narrower remit under distinguished individuals to address tricky policy problems. And now Parliament has sought to move back into this territory with the Commission on Banking Standards just published under Andrew Tyrie MP and consisting of members of both Houses.

A royal commission is an ad hoc advisory committee appointed by the government (in the name of the Crown) for a specific investigatory and/or advisory purpose. An ancient institution (William I’s 1085 royal mandate leading to the creation of the Domesday Book is usually cited as the first), royal commissions have come in and out of fashion over the centuries. In the past 200 years, they were most in vogue during the 19th century: some 388 commissions were established between 1830 and 1900 (more than 5 a year on average). They have been less frequent in the post war-era: 30 were set up between 1945 and 1975 (just more than one a year on average), and just seven between 1975 and 2000 (0.28 per year on average).

Despite their importance, they have also been subject to frequent criticism. Sir Alan Herbert, the independent MP and wit of the inter-war era, once remarked that “a Government department appointing a royal commission is like a dog burying a bone – except that a dog does eventually return to the bone”.

Royal commissions in the post-war era

The 37 royal commissions established since 1945 are listed in the table are the end of this blog. They range from the future of the constitution, via gambling and the press (both twice) to marriage and divorce. The graph below gives a sense of how the establishment of royal commissions has fluctuated in the post-war era.

Number of royal commissions










What then, for Wilson’s contention that they “last years”. If this referred (at least in part) to the time-lag from the date of the commission’s establishment to when it produced its first report, then the graph below is revealing.

Four commissions set up between 1945 and 2000 did not report at all, as they were wound up for various reasons. The 1964 Royal Commission on the Penal System in England and Wales, for example, was brought to an early close as it was felt that the time was “not opportune for a single review of the penal system” that could draw clear and robust conclusions and recommendations.

Time taken for Royal Commissions to Produce a Report

As the graph above illustrates, the most common range of time taken for a royal commission (established since 1945) to report is 2-4 years. Of the 33 commissions that did produce reports, 27 – or 80% – took at least one full year to produce their first report, and 20 – or 60% – took at least two years to produce their first report.

Have royal commissions been successful?

There is a special category of permanent commissions which are distinct in character from inquiries such as the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (now part of the National Archives) and on Ancient and Historical Monuments, the Royal Fine Arts Commission (and the separate ones for Scotland and Wales) and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, surviving from the winding up of the Great Exhibitions. It still distributes the income from surplus funds to promote scientific and artistic education.

The evidence on the impact of other commissions is mixed, depending largely on the political climate of the time and the degree of controversy of the proposals. This is revealed by the fate of the most recent ones. The Royal Commission on Legal Services (commonly referred to as the Benson Commission, named after its chair Lord Benson) was established in 1976 and reported in 1979, with 369 recommendations. It took the government four years to respond, coolly. No Council for Legal Services was created and his proposal that the Lord Chancellor should have a junior minister in the House of Commons took 12 years to implement.

The recommendations of the Royal Commission on Long-term Care of the Elderly (established in 1997) were not accepted by the Blair Government, largely on grounds of cost, though their suggested approach of largely free care was adopted in Scotland. Lord Sutherland, who chaired the commission, was criticized for being “hopelessly unrealistic” in his proposals. Two members of the commission, including Lord Lipsey, a former government adviser, issued a "dissentient note" declining to support “the main plank of the report”, signed by 10 colleagues. It took well over another decade for Sir Andrew Dilnot’s report on the same issue – which broadly took the same view as the two dissenters in 1999 – eventually to be accepted, in a substantially modified form, by the coalition government.

As noted above, the Wakeham Commission (on the House of Lords) remains part of the still unresolved debate on the future composition of the upper House. While it has influenced and informed subsequent reform proposals, there is still a stalemate on the issue.

Other commissions may be regarded more positively. The Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (established 1977) directly influenced legislation governing police powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the establishment of an independent Crown Prosecution Service in the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. These were major, and lasting changes, in procedure. The 1991 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was “widely applauded” in some of its recommendations, and led to the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It is revealing that these two highly influential Royal Commissions were in the area of law where a consensus, or, at least, broad agreement is highly desirable.

Commissions have been less influential in more highly disputed areas of social policy or constitutional reform – one of the main reasons why they have fallen into disuse and prime ministers have preferred other forms of inquiry.

Royal Commissions established since 1945

  Name Year established Year of first report Years taken to report
1 Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace 1946 1948 2
2 Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors 1946 Terminated 1955 N/A
3 Royal Commission on the Press 1947 1949 2
4 Royal Commission on Lotteries, Betting and Gaming 1949 1951 2
5 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1949 1953 4
6 Royal Commission on Taxation of Profits and Income 1950 1953 3
7 Royal Commission on Dundee (University College) and relationship with St Andrews University 1951 1952 1
8 Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce 1951 1956 5
9 Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs 1952 1954 2
10 Royal Commission on Land and Population in East Africa 1952 1955 3
11 Royal Commission on Pay and Conditions of Service in the Civil Service 1953 1955 2
12 Royal Commission on the Law relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency 1954 1957 3
13 Royal Commission on Common Land 1955 1958 3
14 Royal Commission on the Remuneration of Doctors and Dentists 1957 1960 3
15 Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London 1957 1960 3
16 Royal Commission on the Police 1959 1962 3
17 Royal Commission on the Press 1961 1962 1
18 Royal Commission on the Penal System in England and Wales 1964 Wound up in 1966 N/A
19 Royal Commission on Trades Unions and Employers' Associations 1965 1968 3
20 Royal Commission on Prices and Incomes 1965 Wound up in 1967 N/A
21 Royal Commission on Medical Education 1965 1968 3
22 Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 1966 1966 Less than 1
23 Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966 1969 3
24 Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland 1966 1969 3
25 Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions 1966 1969 3
26 Royal Commission on Industrial Relations 1969 Wound up in 1971 N/A
27 Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969 1973 4
28 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970 1971 1
29 Royal Commission on Civil Liability and Compensation for Personal Injury 1974 1978 4
30 Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth 1974 1975 1
31 Royal Commission on Gambling (Rothschild) 1976 1978 2
32 Royal Commission on the National Health Service (Merrison) 1976 1979 3
33 Royal Commission on Legal Services (Benson) 1976 1979 3
34 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (Philips) 1977 1981 4
35 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (Runciman) 1991 1993 4
36 Royal Commission on Long-term Care of the Elderly (Sutherland) 1997 1999 2
37 Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords (Wakeham) 1999 2000 1
Policy churn
Institute for Government

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